America Eats!

The very title — exclamation point officially included — conveys the exuberance of its original editors. Starting in the late ’30s, as part of the Works Progress Administration, a passel of notable writers — Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Ralph Ellison among them — were paid to document American cooking from coast to coast. Alas, the project was met with the same suspicion as many other WPA projects — Frivolous spending! A haven for Communists! — and was soon killed for good. Now food writer Pat Willard has retrieved the shelved manuscripts, placing selections from the originals side by side with an account of her own coast-to-coast road trip to track down modern havens of American eating. No mere recipe hound, she stays true to the original project, with an eye on “importance of social gatherings that glorify the non-professional cook and keep traditional cookery alive.” The selections from WPA writers document thresher’s dinners, chitlin struts, and squirrel hunts — with dialect, social attitudes, and racial prejudice intact. Willard finds county fairs and venison farms, and explains the difference between Brunswick stew, booya, and burgoo. The occasional recipes come in proportions meant for sharing — say, 30 pounds of oxtail, four hens, and a bushel of tomatoes. While plenty of food writers have documented American cookery, few do so with quite the same vintage charm, literary snap, and respect for the kind of recipes best made in neighborly batches to serve 50 or 500.